muk kampul district, Kandal province – Cham teachers and students returned to the classrooms of the former Om-Alqura Institute without ceremony Wednesday morning.
The 164 students are studying Islam in their hours outside of public school, which they still attend in their neighboring villages.
Om-Alqura, once Cambodia’s largest Islamic school, was closed by the government in May 2003 after authorities arrested three of its foreign staff members on suspicion of association with the extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
The three suspects, two Thais and an Egyptian, are still in prison awaiting trial more than a year later—six months longer than the legal pre-trial detention period.
In April, the government granted the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs permission to reopen the school as the Islamic Center of Cambodia, without affiliation to its old Saudi Arabia-based sponsor Om-Alqura.
One noticeable change has already taken place. Though seated separately, girls shared classrooms with boys.
Pech Solin, who was an administrator for Om-Alqura and is acting director of the Islamic Center of Cambodia, said Wednesday the school has not yet officially reopened.
That will occur in September, at the start of a new school year, and after it has invited Cham students throughout the nation, by television and radio, to enroll, he said.
For now, five Cham men are teaching local youths the Quran and Cham customs for free.
As for curriculum: “We teach them to respect elders, their parents, to pray and how to be good people,” teacher Sleh Ry said.
Teath Mat, 20, was visiting his former campus on Wednesday. After authorities sent Om-Alqura students home last May, he enrolled in the district’s public high school, a shoddy educational experience that he says hurt his chances for higher education.
“I have so little hope of passing the [university] entrance exam. Studying at public school, the teachers aren’t interested in the students,” he said.
Sufficient funding for the upcoming school year has not yet been secured, but the Islamic Center must be wary of its sponsors, to avoid future allegations of terrorist ties, Pech Solin said.
So far, two NGOs—one from Brunei and one from Malaysia—have pledged their support, and Pech Solin said he would be happy to take more money from the Middle East or anywhere else.
He even suggested that US authorities approve the donations or that the money be routed through a US bank.
“Funding will be highly transparent,” Pech Solin said.